Having learned from the likes of FIFA World Cup™-winner Nobby Stiles and English managerial legends Brian Clough and Bob Stokoe, it is perhaps no surprise that Don O’Riordan pursued a career in coaching. By his own admission, the Irishman was "a decent hardworking, dependable pro" who, during a career that spanned three decades and 600 games, man-marked the likes of George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and Gerd Muller.
Yet, as for the person most influential on his career, he cites his older brother Dermot, who developed his talents after school with a series of one-on-one sessions. The care and attention shown to him during his formative years has not been lost on O’Riordan, who has now devoted his professional life to realising the potential of younger players.
After ten years working as a head coach in England and Republic of Ireland, where he was given the responsibility of the country's semi-professional side, O’Riordan found himself at Sheffield United in 2004 when the call came for him to go to China to assist their feeder club, Chengdu Blades with the development of their coaches and players. The impact of the Irishman was swiftly recognised by the Chinese FA who invited him to help prepare their women’s team for the 2008 Olympic Games.
After spending a week working as a coach and analyst, he was invited by coach Shang Ruihua to work alongside him for the duration of the tournament, where the hosts reached the quarter-finals. “That was a tremendous experience for me,” O’Riordan recalled to FIFA.com. “It was an incredible time for the country and for women’s football in general and I think we surprised a lot of people with our performances and results.
“I’ve been in the game for 38 years and obviously seen a lot of players from a lot of countries. As a nation, the Brazilians would have to be the No1 regarding natural ability, but realistically when you look at the potential of China, they have to be in the top ten. Their players have natural skill, pace and agility, which are incredibly difficult assets to develop. They might not have the communication skills, plus the physical and mental strengths that other countries have, but it’s easier to develop those aspects of a player’s make-up.
“With the size of the population, there is no reason why they can’t make strides if they infrastructure is in place. I’ve lived in China for five years now and the country is in my heart. I’ve enjoyed working and living here and I’m desperate to see them make progress on the international stage.”
Someone who recognised China’s improvements and O’Riordan’s influence during those Olympic Games was FIFA Women’s World Cup-winning coach Tina Theune, who found that there was plenty of common ground between herself and the Irishman during their conversations in Qinhuandao.
“We’ve got very similar philosophies about the game,” said Theune. “He understands the modern game; he’s tactically strong and knows how to win matches. On the training pitch, he’s an excellent communicator and motivator – and I don’t think he ever stops thinking about the game. We like our teams to play in the same manner and I believe that he will make an excellent coach of a good international side one day.”
For the former Derby County and Middlesbrough defender, that remains the ultimate dream. “It is a big ambition of mine,” he smiled. “But for me, it’s not just about coaching a team for eight months and then disappearing, I would like to build a legacy for football in a particular country while working to a long-term plan. When you look at what the likes of Korea DPR and Japan have achieved in recent years you can see that success has not come overnight. You’ve always got to learn and keep improving as a player and a coach.”
Recently, O’Riordan and Theune were invited to Cape Town to spend a week working with South Africa’s women’s U-20 team, the Basetsana, prior to their FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifier with Zambia, assisting Augustine Makalakane.
“I was absolutely thrilled to be asked and it went extremely well,” continued O’Riordan. “I did some training sessions with the girls and they were extremely responsive. They won the game 6-0, which was a real bonus, but although the scoreline was emphatic, what really pleased me was that the ideas we worked on in training were visible throughout the game.
“In many ways, the South African players are similar to the Chinese. They are very good in possession, but they need to work on what they have to do to win the ball. It was a great experience for myself and hopefully the players too. They were a joy to work with. I just hope that they can qualify for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.”